Watch out, Nova Scotia. No-zero policies could be coming to a school board near you. While the controversy surrounding the suspension of Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval for giving zeros to students who failed to hand in their work may seem far away, no-zero policies are common across Canada.

Last year, the Eastern school district in St. John’s, N.L., put a firm no-zero policy in place. In that district, teachers cannot give zeros for missing work, deduct marks for late assignments, or even penalize students who plagiarize their essays or cheat on tests. Unsurprisingly, this policy was highly controversial and provoked widespread condemnation, particularly from the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association.

However, not only did the director of education for Eastern school district, Ford Rice, implement this policy, he enthusiastically defended it to the public. Now with his recent appointment as superintendent of schools for the Strait regional school board in Nova Scotia, Rice has the opportunity to bring his no-zeros approach to this province.

Hopefully, school board members across Atlantic Canada will take the time to carefully review the research evidence on no-zero policies. If they do, they’ll find that the evidence does not support the claims made by no-zero supporters.

One of the best-known no-zero advocates is Ken O’Connor, an assessment consultant in Ontario. In his book How to Grade for Learning, O’Connor claims that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning. However, the only source he cites to back up this claim is an article in the NASSP Bulletin by Thomas Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky.

Guskey does make the statement attributed to him by O’Connor, but cites only one research study to support this claim — a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy. In it, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in mainstream classrooms. These six students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks.

It should be obvious that it is absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the rest of the student population. And yet this article is regularly cited by Guskey when he makes the claim that grades of zero have a negative impact on students. Even a more recent article by Guskey that appeared in the November 2011 edition of Educational Leadership contains the same claim, with Selby and Murphy’s article again providing the only research support.

Clearly, the claim that research evidence strongly supports no-zero policies is flawed. No-zero proponents cannot hide behind the research argument since the evidence for their position is quite weak.

In addition, there are many reasons why school administrators should avoid no-zero policies. One is that they inevitably bring controversy with them, something acknowledged by even their strongest proponents. School administrators need to ask themselves whether a no-zero policy is worth the opposition they are certain to face.

Students who submit their work on time could actually end up receiving worse grades than those who submit only some assignments. Since no-zero policies prohibit teachers from giving a zero for incomplete work, a student who hands in an assignment and receives a mark of 30 per cent would actually have been better off not to submit it. In fact, students will figure out that it is in their best interest to pick and choose the assignments they submit.

No-zero policies also unreasonably interfere with the professional discretion of teachers to determine grades. Teachers know their students and realize that it is unrealistic to expect the same strategies to work with every student. All a no-zero policy does is take away one of the consequences teachers can use for students who fail to submit their work.

Finally, no-zero policies fail to prepare students for life after high school. Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing and universities don’t grant credit to students who choose not to hand in their assignments. A pilot who never flies a plane, an electrician who never wires a house, and a journalist who never hands in a story can all expect to get paid nothing. Employers aren’t going to accommodate employees who can’t be bothered to submit their work. Teachers need to prepare their students for this reality.

Let’s hope school board members in this province recognize the folly of no-zero policies and stay away from them.

Michael Zwaagstra is the AIMS Fellow in Common Sense Education, a high school social studies teacher, and co-author of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

Read the op-ed in The Chronicle Herald here